Know Thy Vocation

Proverbs 10.4

A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich. 

When I was in middle school I, along with everyone else, was paraded into a computer lab, (do those still exist?) and put in front of a machine in order to take a test.

They called it an aptitude test and the hope was that, by the end of it, each of us would have a better idea about a future career that would suit us best.

I can remember a few of the questions being like “Do you prefer the day or the night?” And “Would you rather read a book or watch a movie?” And “Would you call yourself a leader or a follower?”

The questions went on and on and on and the room was filled with nothing but the sound of clicks as each of us tried to figure out who we would become.

After the final question, my computer processed the requite information and displayed my top three career choices: 

1. Public Speaker

2. High School English Teacher

3. Politician

We were each handed a print out of our futures and quickly compared our answers with oohs and ahs and a whole lot of laughter. 

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I know that most of us dismissed the test, we were 13 years old after all, but those answers really stuck with me over the years. To be honest, I was shocked that the random assortment of questions, asked by a computer, could so easily identify my owns strengths and desires for a day not yet seen. And when I think about where I wound up, it’s all the more crazy.

Because on any given week, I stand and publicly speak to a whole lot of people about a particular subject, I will gather in a small room to teach about the words from a book written long ago, and there are a remarkable number of aspects of my job that are, regrettably, political.

When I use the word political I don’t necessarily mean being either liberal or conservative, but political in the sense of being careful about what I say. It doesn’t do the church any good if the preacher runs people off for their different political proclivities or specific beliefs, but it also doesn’t help if we all stay the same all the time. Sometimes, it does the church some good to hear a word that pushes us to a place we didn’t expect. 

When was the last time you were surprised by what I, or any other preacher had to say? I’m sure some of you have been surprised by the stories I’ve told or the weird things I’ve whispered while handing you the body of Christ, but I mean really and truly surprised by something said in this space?

During the time of John Wesley’s life, preaching was, to put it mildly, abysmally boring. We have collections of sermons delivered at the time and I promise their best use today would be as a sleep remedy. So for a crowd to gather week after week, listening to someone droll on and on about this, that, and the other, it wouldn’t take a lot for them to be surprised. 

All congregants, then and now, bring certain expectations with them to church. People assume they know what will happen because of what they’ve experienced before, or what’s been filtered through television shows and moves, but John Wesley liked to turn things around and he approached them from angles previously unseen.

It was a tactic he learned from this guy named Jesus.

Here’s an example: There’s this parable Jesus told that we, today, call the Unjust Steward. The basic gist of the story is that there’s this crooked manager of funds who ultimately cooks the books so that he, and others, would be taken care of in the future. He acts immorally in order to selfishly benefit himself and others who didn’t deserve it. And then the master of the manager finds out what he did and praises him for being smart enough to do so.

Everything about the story is wrong. 

We know how its supposed to go, much like the crowds did the day they heard Jesus tell the story. We know the Unjust Steward is supposed to be fired right there on the spot for cooking the books. We know he’s supposed to be hauled off to jail for taking advantage of his powerful position. We know that punishment is inevitable. But instead Jesus parades this disreputable man out for all to see and says he’s the hero of the story.

Talk about being surprised.

But we have the benefit of knowing how Jesus’ personal story ultimately ends, we know that the tomb is empty on Easter. We know that Jesus himself was quite an unjust manager, doing whatever he could to cook the books in our salvific favor. But that’s for another sermon.

Wesley learned from the Lord the great joy and wonder that can come from surprising those with ears to hear. There’s just something awesome about lifting up a particular expectation and subverting it completely. That kind of preaching grabs attention and it sticks with people even years later.

And so it came to pass that the people called Methodist gathered to listen to John Wesley and he chose to upend their previously held expectations and beliefs to tell them something that most other clergy, then and now, wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole: “If you want to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, you need to earn all the money you can.”

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Imagine, if you can, being part of the lower socioeconomic classes and listening to a man, in church of all places, tell you to go out and earn all the money you can. 

That’s not what they expected him to say. 

Instead, they expected him to berate money, and even more to loathe the loving of it. They expected him to lift up gold and silver as the banality of all evil and the great corrupter of souls. They expected him to, as another pastor once did, lift up a few bills, light them on fire, and say, “I have just killed the god you really worship.”

Which, to be fair, are all things that could be, and perhaps should be, said about money in church. It really can become a horrific wedge between people, it can become an idol we worship, it can become so many terrible terrible things. 

But before money becomes anything, it is first a gift from God.

When we talk about the word vocation in church people either miss hear it for the word vacation, or they assume that it only refers to pastors. A vocation is, after all, a calling. And I do in fact feel called to do what I do. But vocations are not for pastors alone.

The church has done a great disservice over the years by losing sight of how God calls all of us to our vocations. And to make things all the more complicated, its almost always easier to see our vocations after we’ve gotten into them rather than the other way around.

Like that aptitude test I took all those years ago, the church is called to help individuals see how their gifts and graces can be used in ways that accomplish God’s best purposes for our lives, and to help fulfill God’s life-giving purposes in the world. Each of us have been bestowed with gifts and grace by God that can be used by God for the upbuilding of the kingdom that ultimately belongs to God. 

God calls all of us in ways seen and unseen to use what we have in ways seen and unseen for the larger work of God’s work in the world.

When Wesley spoke to the people in the early movement about earning all they could, it was not just about earning money for it’s own sake. Wesley called them to earn all they could for the higher purpose of fulfilling God’s hopes and intention for their lives. 

  His preaching was straight-forward and to the point. He almost never used a quippy little story to shed light on something else, something I do all the time. Instead he jumped in with an almost refreshing clarity…

Never leave anything till tomorrow which you can do today.

Do not sleep or yawn over your work.

Put your whole strength to the work God has given you.

Spare no pains.

Let nothing be done in halves, or in a slight or a careless manner.

Let nothing in your business be left undone if it can be done with work.

Those are all quotes from the guy who started the movement that led to a church like this! And they are not instructions to pastors alone, though it wouldn’t hurt. These are instructions for all who want to follow Jesus. 

And, lest we walk away today thinking that Wesley was some crazy dictator envisioning a future working class of the church alone, he got all of these ideas from the Bible, and in particular from the book of Proverbs. I already shared my dislike for the book last week, God forgive me, because it doesn’t necessarily preach – there’s not much more I can add to the straight-forwardness of a collection of aphorisms about what to do.

There is profit in hard work, but mere talk leads to poverty.

Laziness brings sleep, and a slacker goes hungry.

The lazy have strong desires by receive nothing, the appetite of the diligent is satisfied.

Those are all proverbs from the book of Proverbs. And when you combine their motifs with what Wesley had to say it all kind of comes down to: Don’t be lazy and earn all you can.

In other churches, in other denominations, that might suffice. A pastor could end the sermon with a call to end laziness and then send everyone on their way. But there’s more to earning than just earning for the sake of earning. Wesley put it this way: Gain all you can by being diligent. Don’t be lazy, don’t wait to get done what you can. All of that. But then he also added this: Gain all you can by common sense. Which is another way of saying, improve thyself. 

Did you know that 25% of Americans haven’t read a book in more than a year? As Christians we are caught up in a movement that is built upon the idea what we are in a constant state of learning. And not just from the Bible! According to Wesley being a Christian means being willing to have our horizons expanded, to glean from others as much as we possibly can, to grow in Christlikeness is also to grow in wisdom. 

Part of that common sense, to use Wesley’s words, is about learning how to use something like our wealth for a larger purpose than just our own satisfaction. There’s a reason we release more endorphins in our brains when we give someone a gift than when we ourselves receive a gift. 

And Wesley’s final caveat for gaining all we can is to do so without paying more for it than it’s worth. And to me, this is where is gets really interesting. It’s interesting because as people who gain all we can, we cannot do so at the expense of our health. We are creatures who need rest and reprieve, we need recreation for re-creation. Burning the candle at both ends just to gain all we can only insures that our candle will disappear rapidly.

We also cannot gain at the expense of our souls or our neighbors. If our wealth is only a product of the devaluing of others, or if we make profits off of evil and horrific means then we will, as Jesus says, gain the whole world and lose our souls. There is bad work that we can do, all sorts of jobs that can fill our coffers but if they result in a more broken world then they are not for us. 

And finally, Wesley says that we cannot gain it all unless we recognize from whom all of it comes in the first place. 

I don’t know about you, but I’ve grown tired of the endless stories of the self-made individuals, of the people who earned their own fortune without the help from anyone else. No one is self-made. Period. We are all creatures created by God, we’ve all been purposed with gifts to participate in the kingdom in ways both big and small. In the eyes of God the richest person on earth is of the same value as the poorest person on the earth. God makes us what we are, not the other way around. 

Because in the end we are all actually poor. We can’t bring money with us when we die. And no amount of money could buy us a spot in the kingdom of heaven anyway. It is the Lord who makes us worthy, through the craziest means imaginable, death on a cross. 

God has already given to us more than we could ever ask for. Jesus has cooked the books in our favor. Earning all we can is good but it has nothing to do with salvation – God has already given that to us scot-free. Instead, we earn all we can so that what we earn can be used here and now for the Lord and his kingdom. Amen. 

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Lead Us Not Into…

Luke 4.1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. 

I’ve often talked about the role that commentaries play on the development and proclamation of a sermon. Perhaps the text is very familiar and the pastor desperately wants to find a new angle, or the passage appears to difficult to tackle and the preacher just wants all the help the preacher can get.

That’s when the commentary gets dragged down from the shelf and the pages start flying.

Commentaries can be an invaluable tool when doing this thing I do every week, but sometimes they just fall flat.

I looked through just about every single commentary in my office this week in preparation for this sermon. After all, the temptation of Jesus is indeed one of those stories that lots and lots of people already know. And, to further complicate matters, the devil is in it. 

It’s familiar and it’s difficult. 

What’s a preacher to say about a story most of us know that contains a character most of us ignore?

So I pulled down the commentaries and started reading…

Just like Jesus, we will all face trials and temptations, and we need to do everything we can to resist them in whatever way they present themselves.

When we read the words from the Devil, it is a reminder that we need to take on a posture of intentionality to rebuke his destructive advances.

We read this story at the beginning of Lent as a reminder that we need to let go of the things that are keeping us from being with God.

Did you notice anything there? In almost every commentary I read about the temptations of Jesus, they are ultimately focused more on our temptations than on those faced by Jesus.

Or, to put it very plainly, the commentaries make it seem like Jesus is an after-thought in the never ending battle against our vices.

Or still yet another way to look at it – God helps those who help themselves.

Except, this isn’t a story about us.

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On Ash Wednesday many of us gathered here in the sanctuary and we heard those frighteningly familiar words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Those ashen cross on our foreheads were the first steps into a season that is often marked with sacrifice, repentance, and fighting against temptations.

There are plenty of things we can, or perhaps should, give up.

4 out of every 10 adults in America are obese. Maybe we should go on a collective diet?

The average American has $5,331 in credit card debt right now. Maybe we start budgeting our money?

I could go on and on and on.

But perhaps today can be a sobering reminder, akin to the reality check that Ash Wednesday provides, that we aren’t really capable of resisting temptation. Maybe, if we abandon anything this season, it should be the notion that giving something up it makes us better people. 

Perhaps we should ditch the belief that life is up to us.

If Lent is at all about us, its about how far off we are from God, how unlike God we are, and yet God choose to be like us in order to rectify the wrongness within us.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not entirely sure I’m grateful to Luke for this story about Jesus in the wilderness. It’s certainly dramatic, but the longer I read it, the worse it makes me feel.

The Devil says, “If you really are the Son of God, then do something!

The world is going to hell in a hand basket, there are people starving for food, they’re suffering from the chaos of a world that could be incredible if someone with enough power would smack them into shape, they’re wandering around in darkness waiting for God to give them any definitive demonstration that they can hold on to.”

It’s like the devil takes a good look at Jesus and realizes, “If we combined our powers we really could get this whole show on the road.”

This story has the power to bring me down in the dumps because in it I hear myself asking Jesus some of those same questions. I think I know what would be best for the world, and if Jesus could just get with the program, my program, we could fix all this brokenness around us.

Take away the fact that Jesus is Lord, and in this little vignette, he looks kind of like a jerk. Why won’t he work a little miracle and bring about some food?  Why won’t he just take control of the world? Why won’t he give the world a taste of God’s saving power?

But, those questions are our temptation, and they only go to show how far we are from the divine. It shows how this story is just like any other conversation between two people who simply cannot understand one another.

The devil is operating out of a world view that is remarkably like our own – he wants a demonstration of power and wants immediate gratification.

Jesus is operating out of a kingdom view that is totally unlike our own – he knows the myth of progress to which we are so inextricably tied.

If we were really capable of fixing this world, wouldn’t we have done it by now?

Of course the hungry should be fed, and the wanderers should be led, and the hopeless should be given hope. But we’ve been doing that kind of work for a long time, a really long time, and what do we have to show for it?

We are so much a people of the world, rather than the kingdom, that it is nearly impossible to see the story from any point of view other than the devil’s. Again, if you take away the fact that Jesus is the Son of God, take away the fact that we know the end of the story, the devil’s questions sound pretty good!

That’s crazy.

It’s a crazy thing to realize, here at the beginning of our own Lenten journeys, that the person with whom we have to most in common in this story isn’t Jesus, but the devil. 

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But the craziest thing of all is that Jesus eventually does all of the things the devil tempts him to do. Not out there in the wilderness, but by the time we reach the end of the gospel we discover that he does them in his own time and in his own way.

When he’s with the devil in the wilderness he refuses to turn a stone into a loaf of bread to satisfy his hunger – but later he turns some bread and fish into a buffet for 5,000. Which, incidentally, only incites the crowds desire to him become a version of who the devil tempts him to become.

When he’s with the devil in the wilderness he refuses to worship the devil to gain control of the world – but later he ascends to rule over the earth, not with a powerful and war-like regime, but from the vulnerable arms of the cross.

When he’s with the devil in the wilderness he refuses to test God’s willingness to demonstrate his saving power – but later he dies and is buried in the ground, only to rise again through God’s power in the resurrection.

How strange a story this is for people like us to read. In it we discover that the God who took on flesh to be like us is still completely unlike us. We catch a glimpse of the totality of the gospel in just a few verses. And we even celebrate Jesus’ ability to resit temptation even though he eventually makes all of those tempted realities real in his own way.

One of the worst temptations during the season of Lent is to puff ourselves up as if we are above and beyond the temptations that are thrown at us by the world. 

The hard truth of the gospel is that even if we are able to resist a temptation or two, part of our human nature implies that we will succumb. We will eat the food we know we shouldn’t, we will hurt the people who deserve better, and we will foolishly believe that we know what’s best for ourselves, for others, for the world, and even for Jesus.

I like to think, on some days, that I’m a pretty okay person. I like to believe that given the right set of circumstances I will make the good and right choice. I like to imagine that there is more goodness in me than there is badness.

But, there are parts of me that are indefensible. 

I have made wrong choices.

I have hurt the people I love.

I have thought myself greater than I really am.

At the heart of Lent is a willingness to look in the mirror and realize who I really am.

And if pastoring has taught me anything, there are parts of each of you that are indefensible as well.

A particular word that stung someone so badly they haven’t talked to you in years.

A receptive omission of something seemingly insignificant that became a wedge between you and your partner.

A foolish assumption that elevated you above everyone else and resulted in nothing but more and more resentment.

There is a frightening truth in the words that we often read in church without giving them much thought: Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy. 

There are parts of us that simply cannot be defended.

And, in the words of Fleming Rutledge, if we don’t know that to be true, then we do not yet know the grace of God. If we don’t understand our own defenselessness in the grip of sin, and temptation, and death, then we do not yet know who it is who comes to us as the One who justifies the ungodly.

This Jesus, the one who rebuffs the temptations of the Devil, is the one who comes not to make our lives better or give us the strength to resist our own temptations. Jesus comes to live and die and live again to justify us. 

Take a good hard look at the cross, survey it in all of its wonder and violence, it is the sign for you and me that our God is a God of impossible possibility. When we read the story of the temptations in the wilderness it is a harrowing reminder that Jesus does for us what we could not, and cannot, do for ourselves.

He delivers us from evil. Amen. 

The Future Is Important

In anticipation of the United Methodist Church’s upcoming Call Special General Conference on human sexuality, I led a three part Sunday school class for my church on the theology behind the conference. During our first class I unpacked all of the letter from the LGBTQIA acronym, and in the second class we looked at the five passages in scripture that mention homosexuality. To conclude the class we debated whether or not the UMC should change its current language.

Considering the fact that many people in the room felt strongly about the future of the UMC, I wanted to make some of what I taught and some of what was discussed available to a wider audience via this blog. Below you can find some of my notes and some of the reactions from people in the class. 

This is not meant as an exhaustive theological resource regarding the call to remain the same or change, but merely as a brief and general overview. And, to be clear, the opinions/comments below are not from me alone and represent comments from the entire class. 

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The Future Is Important

The current doctrinal position of the United Methodist Church is that the “practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” This manifests itself in a number of ways from self-avowed practicing homosexuals being barred from ordination in the UMC, to clergy being punished for presiding over same-sex unions, to some pastors using the language to prevent members of the LGBTQIA community from becoming members in the churches they serve. 

For decades the denomination has debated our current position and whether or not to enforce our doctrinal position, or to change it.

Why Should The UMC Maintain Its Position?

The witness of the Bible is explicit regarding homosexuality. Though mentioned rather infrequently, the mentions are unified in its being against the perspective of the Law. 

We are a global church and there are vary different opinions about homosexuality throughout the world, but theological and cultural. In order to stay unified, we need to make sure that the language is applicable throughout the globe.

Salvation is at stake. We don’t want to encourage anyone to disobey the commands of God should it remove from them the possibility of their heavenly reward. 

Why Should The UMC Change Its Position?

Though the witness of the Bible is explicit regarding homosexuality, it is often included in a list of laws, some of which were abandoned within the first century of the church. It appear incongruous to emphasize some laws over the others, particularly when homosexuality is mentioned less than other moral/ethical concerns like adultery, divorce, dietary restrictions, etc.

Homosexuality it not a choice. Why then would we tell people they are incompatible if they are unable to change who they are?

Questions about sexuality often lead to despair in young people, particularly those who are involved with a church. If we are a church who believes than some are incompatible, then we are telling people who question their identity that God has abandoned them.

Jesus would not reject homosexuals – he would welcome them with open arms. 

Homosexuals have as many gifts for ministry as heterosexuals do.

Conclusions

The future is important for the United Methodist Church. What happens in the next few weeks will largely determine (for better and worse) what that future will look like. For some there is hope that maintaining the integrity of the Biblical witness will carry the church into the future. For others there is hope that opening the doors for homosexual ordination and marriage will carry us into the future.

No matter what happens, some people will leave the church and some churches will leave the denomination. The sheer fact that we are being compelled to discern and vote on something like this points at the irony of a name like the UNITED Methodist Church. 

If you would like to read more about the plans being presented, and the ramifications of each, you can read about them here: Overview of Plans to 2019 General Conference

If

1 Corinthians 15.12-20

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ – whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 

I worry about the future of our church.

Not just Cokesbury, but also the greater United Methodist Church.

We have been debating for decades about the inclusion or exclusion of gay individuals from the church. And in a week, representatives from the entire denomination will be meeting in St. Louis to discern and decide the future of God’s church.

At the heart of the matter is our church’s doctrine that says the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.

Some want the language to remain, and others want it gone. 

I worry because I don’t know what’s going to happen next week.

Any accurate reading of the Bible should make it clear that homosexuality goes against the plain truth of the Word of God. As one preacher warns, “In overstepping the boundary lines God has drawn by making special rights for gays and lesbians, we have taken steps in the direction of inviting the judgment of God upon our land.”

This step of gay rights that some are arguing for in the church is but another stepping stone toward the immorality and lawlessness that will be characteristic of the last days. 

Attempts to change our church doctrine represents a denial of all that we believe in, and no one should force it on us.

It’s not that we don’t care about homosexuals, but it’s that our rights will be taken away.

Unchristian views will be forced upon us and our children for we will be forced to go against our personal morals.

There are people who are endeavoring to disturb God’s established order, it is not in line with the Bible, do not let people lead you astray.

Those leading the movement toward change do not believe the Bible any longer, but every good, intelligent, and orthodox Christian can read the Word of God and know what is happening is not of God.

When you run into conflict with God’s established order you have trouble. 

You do not produce harmony.

You produce destruction and devastation.

Our church is in the greatest danger that it has ever been in in its history.

We’ve gotten away from the Bible.

The right of segregation…

Hold on, let me find my spot…

The right of segregation is clearly established by the Holy Scriptures both by precept and by example…

I’m sorry everyone. I brought the wrong sermon with me today.

I’ve borrowed my argument from the wrong century.

Everything I just read to you are quotes from white preachers in the 1950s and 60s who were in support of racial segregation.

All I’ve done is simply taken out racial integration and substituted in with the phrases about homosexuals in the church.

I guess the arguments I’ve been hearing from people in the United Methodist Church have sounded so similar that I got them confused. 

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If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.

Paul was worried about his comrades in faith in Corinth – that’s what the whole letter has basically been about. They were apparently drifting away from the path of truth and life he Paul, though his words, attempts to steer those new to the faith back to the way that is Jesus the Christ.

He caught wind that they were no longer sharing the eucharist together and he writes about the body of Christ with many members. He learned that they were engaging in internal competitions about who was the best and he address how Christ alone is the head of the body. 

And now, toward the end, he confronts the real heart of the matter – questions about the resurrection of the dead.

Paul is screaming through the pages of his letter: “This is it you Corinthians! It’s this or nothing. Everything depends upon whether or not this is true.”

As I said last week, for Paul this was of first importance: Christ died, Christ was buried, Christ rose again.

That is the story that captivated much of the Mediterranean world in the decades following the event. It is the story that is still catching hold of new Christians all across the world.

It is a profound announcement about things that happened.

It’s not a collection of generic religious principles and laws.

It’s not a list of things to do.

The very heart of the gospel is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

This passage, though known and often quoted by Christian-types, has a finality and punch to it that can come across as rather frightening.

Paul puts it like this: If there is no resurrection from the dead, then we are all fools and we are still in our sins.

The power of Paul’s wisdom is often overlooked in the church today. We are far more captivated by the likes of Noah and his Ark and David fighting Goliath than we are with a first century man who made it his life’s work to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.

The great heroes of the Bible are more interesting than the letters of correct theology.

And yet, we forget, that Paul’s letters were written before any of the gospel accounts were written down.

We forget that without Paul’s witness and prayers and ministry, Christianity would have stayed among the Jews alone and never spread to the gentiles like us.

We forget that Paul is the one who handed on to us what was of first importance.

And among the things he shares with the Corinthians, this is of the utmost: 

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then the entire foundation of our faith has been destroyed and Christian preaching becomes nothing more than endless delusions that offer lies and empty gestures.

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then we mock ourselves with falsehoods and expect people to live into a new world order that doesn’t exist.

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then all we can offer the world is a pious lie that veils people from the truth that we are powerless and truly alone.

But, brothers and sisters, be assured: there is no such thing as “if” in the lexicon of God. 

Death has been defeated in the death of Jesus Christ. 

This is not something we want to be true, or need to be true, or imagine to be true.

It is so far beyond what we could want, need, or imagine.

It is simply the truth of God’s power and majesty and might.

Jesus was raised from the dead.

One of the most incredible aspects of what we call our faith is that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is not contingent on whether we believe it or not. Even in the days of our greatest doubts, Jesus is still resurrected. 

But what we do, what we stand for, is only intelligible because Christ is raised. 

It is down right foolish to teach our children to turn the other cheek unless the resurrection is real.

It is absurd to give our money to something like a church unless the resurrection is real.

It is truly irresponsible to pray for and love our enemies unless the resurrection is real.

And yet, the church, and to be specific, the United Methodist Church is drawing near to the edge of a cliff about the definition of what is or is not compatible with Christian teaching.

I’ll be the first to admit that Paul mentions a lot of sins throughout his letters, aspects of living that draw us away from God almighty. 

Some of them include not caring for the poor and the foreigners in our midst, others are focused on the sin of letting women speak in church, and some of them are about how we engage with others in a sexual manner.

But here in 1 Corinthians 15, when Paul talks about the most important aspect of our faith, the only sins that he mentions are the sins for which Christ has already died – all of them.

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It is crazy that our church has the potential of going up (or down) in flames in the next two weeks, all over an argument about what does and what does not count as a sin when every one of our sins has already been up in the cross of Jesus Christ! 

Paul says that if Jesus has not been raised from the dead then we are still in our sins, which is another way of saying that since Christ has been raised from the grace, we are no longer in our sins. 

Paul, in another letter, is quick to claim that nothing can separate from the love of God in Jesus Christ and that there is nothing we can do, truly nothing, that can negate what Christ has already done for us. 

But we’d rather spend our time arguing about who is living in sin, and who isn’t. We want to know where the line is drawn in the sand and we want to know, for sure, which side we are on, and which side they are on.

We’ve done it before.

Slavery.

Segregation.

Women’s subordination.

All theological positions about what was or wasn’t sin that people fought tooth and nail over.

We’re doing it right now with regard to homosexuality.

And the saddest thing of all is that this isn’t the late debate we will have.

Whether we’re progressive or traditional, whether we lean one way or another, according to Paul it doesn’t matter how correctly we interpret the bible, nor does it matter with whom we share our bed or what we do in it – none of it changes the fact that Christ died and rose for us and we are no longer in our sins.

That doesn’t give us the freedom to go and do whatever we want.

But it does free us from the self-righteous judgments we make against people with whom we disagree.

God’s grace is the unmerited gift that is not dependent on our beliefs or our piety or our moral accomplishments.

But we live in a world of the Law. We so desperately want to know what is right and what is wrong, because we want to know that we’re right so that we can lord it over those who are wrong.

In the end, the only thing the Law shows us is that we all fail to be obedient. 

But the Law isn’t the end – in fact Jesus says he came to fulfill the Law.

That’s the story of the gospel. 

God so loved the world, in spite of the world, that God got down from the throne, and condescended to our miserable existence to rescue us from ourselves through the blood spilled on the cross.

God so loved the world, in spite of the world, that God broke forth from the tomb and free from the chains of death so that death would never be the final word.

God so loved the world, in spite of the world, that God died and lived again so that we would no longer be defined by our sins.

There is no such thing as “if” in the lexicon of God.

The Law will never do more than condemn us in our sins, until that incredible and truly transformative moment while we were still sinners, grace shows up in the person of Jesus Christ and liberates us from every sin without a single condition attached.

The gospel is not about if we do something or not.

The gospel is not about if we love someone or not.

The gospel is not about if people are compatible or not. 

The gospel is the extravagant, outrageous, and even absurd gift of grace, love, and resurrection.

Nothing more. Nothing less. Nothing else. Amen. 

Precious Lamb of Jesus Christ – A Snow Day Sermon

Isaiah 43.1-7

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth — everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

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She’s looks up at the strange man in whose arms she is being held. Her mother and father are standing nearby with looks of hopeful anticipation but she keeps looking at the man who seems to be talking to everyone else. 

There’s a bowl of water nearby. She wants to touch it. But the man keep moving her around.

Suddenly everyone gathers closer and the man’s voice grows very soft. She feels a cold slither making its way down her head and she hears the word, “Father.”

The liquid spills onto the top of her dress when she she feels the cold across her scalp once again though this time she hears the word, “Son.”

She feels the goosebumps spreading across her body and all she really wants is to be held by her mother when the final handful of water splashes all over with the last words, “Holy Spirit.”

The last thing she remembers is being carried by the man around a large room filled with people all staring, staring right at her, with smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes.

She grows up in the church, or at least that’s what other people say, but she’s not there every week. She knows all the words to some of the hymns, she always dips her bread in the cup with practiced precision, and she sees plenty of pastors come and go.

And then she leaves, off to find her own way in college. She doesn’t know who she is really, or even what she wants to do, but she studies hard and pours herself into her work.

Graduation comes and goes. Boyfriends come and go. Jobs come and go. And with each passing momentous moment, she feels a little less than she did before. The people and the work and the moments require so much of whoever she is.

She wanders.

She marries.

She has children.

She finds herself back in church.

She leaves the church.

She buries her mother.

And then her father.

She brings the first child to college, and then the second.

She volunteers in the community, makes new friends, starts a book club.

She realizes that she has more gray hair than brown.

She drives by a church on a Sunday morning and, on a whim, she decides to stop and go inside.

The pastor stands at the front of the room, with a little baby in his hands and two parents on the side. He lifts water from the fount and places it gingerly on the tiny little head. And the last thing she hears before the tears starting streaming down her face are the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. You are a precious lamb of Jesus Christ.”

Who am I?

Where do I belong?

What give me worth?

These questions, whether we are young or old, they never really go away; we are a people looking for answers.

And, more often than not, we go looking for those answers in all the wrong places. We seek out our identity in our spouses or our children, we claim ourselves in our work or our vocation, we even define who we are by our accomplishments or retirement accounts.

But those things never bring us what we need.

What we need, according to Isaiah, is to hear how God is the one who gives us identity and value.

“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”

I have redeemed you!

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The people who heard these words from Isaiah were bloodied, bruised, and bedraggled. They were thrown into exile without hope for the future. And in God’s most bewildering of ways, these tender words remind the people Israel who they were, and whose they were, despite their identities and circumstances.

We often don’t like the so-called “God of the Old Testament.” God sends a flood to wipe out the humanity God had created in order to start again. God asks a father to sacrifice his only son in order to test his faithfulness. God sends an entire group of people into exile for their continued sins and ignorance of the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast.

But, to be abundantly clear, the God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament!

Only in God’s infinite and unknowable wisdom does the exile become the mechanism in which the people Israel become who God always intended them to be.

In that time, living as strangers in a strange land, if the exiles were able to take a good and hard look at themselves in the mirror they would’ve seen a tiny, miserable, and insignificant band of uprooted men and women who were standing on the edges of the empire.

But Isaiah screams out at them in the midst of the suffering and isolation and fear: “That’s not who you are! You don’t belong to Babylon, you don’t even belong to yourselves, you belong to God!” 

They are a hopeless people in desperate need of hope. But where in the world could they find hope in the midst of such uncertainty? The hope they so desperately needed is not within them, it is not even in some leader who claims to speak on behalf of all the people.

Their hope, their only hope, is in the One who has not turned away from them.

Today, just as in the time of Isaiah, we let our sins define us and those around us. Whether it was a one time mistake, or even a habitual failure, we name and are named by our failures. We’ve grown far too comfortable with letting a choice define an entire person’s life.

And yet, and yet (!), we are precious lambs of Jesus Christ in the sight of God despite our sins! That’s crazy! No matter how horrible we feel about what we’ve done, no matter how judgmental we are regarding the actions of the people around us, to God we are precious. 

To God we will always belong.

However, lest we fall prey to the belief that God’s loves gives us the freedom to do whatever we want, to whomever we want, whenever we want… that’s not what Isaiah is saying. The prophet is looking out on a people in the midst of uncertainty, then and now, and says that when we fail and fall (because we will), whether as individuals or even as churches, we can take comfort in the realization that our sins do not prompt God to quit loving us or laying claim to us. 

God’s love doesn’t free us to sin. God’s loves frees us from believing that our sins define us.

We can put our trust and hope in a great number of things – a spouse, a job, a politician, a bank account. But all of those things will eventually fail to give us what we’re looking for.

Instead, the prophet Isaiah calls us to put our hope and trust in the One who never abandons us.

Today churches all across the globe are celebrating the baptism of Jesus Christ. They will encounter the wonderful story of Jesus being compelled to the water and receiving his own baptism by his cousin John. And it is a rather fitting moment for us considering the fact that in baptism, God marks us and claims us as God’s own children. In the water, God seals God’s love for us, no matter what we’ve done and no matter what we will do.

In the water, we are precious.

Baptism, though we only receive it once, is not something that we do and then wash our hands of it forever. Our individual baptisms are something that we return to over and over again. At our church today we were planning to baptize a grandfather and his granddaughter, but the snow prevented us from gathering together! We were going to surround them at the fount as they heard the words that countless others have heard. I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit – you are a precious lamb of Jesus Christ.

And then the plan was to have everyone come forward to place their fingers or the hands in the water to remember their own baptisms – to be grateful and mindful of the water that brings us our truest identities.

Throughout January we’re doing a series on What’s Right With The Church? There’s plenty that’s wrong, but there is far more right with the church than wrong. In the church, and in particular through the sacrament of baptism, we discover that we are wanted and loved by God regardless of whether we deserve it or not.

That’s pretty crazy when you think about it!

While we live in a world in which institutions and individuals can regularly disappoint us or even abandon us, God says, “I have called you by name, and you are mine!” Amen. 

We Are Not David

1 Samuel 17.32-49

David said to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.” David said, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” So Saul said to David, “Go, and may the Lord be with you!” Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried to walk in vain, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.” So David removed them. Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine. The Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. The Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.” But David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give into our hand.” When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.”

This story, right smack dab in the middle of 1 Samuel, might be the most well-known and retold story in the bible. It is simple, direct, playful, and full of enough action to please any audience.

While all the armies of Israel tremble before the giant Goliath, a little boy named David takes runs quickly, slings a stone, and strikes Goliath in the forehead.

Goliath is dead.

            Israel triumphs.

            Then end.

But the writer, the teller of the tale, fills it with far more details than that.

The Philistines gathered their armies for battle, a terrible sight to imagine for the fledgling Hebrew people. And there came from the camp a champion named Goliath, who was about ten feet tall, with a helmet of bronze, and his armor weighed 150 pounds.

Goliath is huge. It is abundantly clear that there is no one else like him. And he demands the Israelites send out a champion to fight, the winner will bring the great victory to their entire people.

And up pops David. Goliath demanded a worthy warrior, and he got a little shepherd boy. David was only at the battlefield bringing his older brothers something to eat. The king, Saul, is paralyzed with fear, and David offers to fight the giant Goliath.

Saul is incredulous, “You are you to fight this Goliath? You’re nothing but a little boy!” And thus God pops into the story for the first time when David responds: “The Lord who saved me from the lion and the bear will save me from the Philistine.”

David has nothing but a sling, a few rocks, and hope in the Lord. Saul tries to give him armor and weapons, but they only hold him back, so David rejects the tools of the trade and places his trust in the Lord.

With God’s help, David took the shepherd’s sling and one smooth stone and brought Goliath to the point of death.

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This little story is, I am convinced, the beloved story of all middle school age boys. I have yet to encounter a 13-year-old boy who did not believe this was the most important story in the bible. Perhaps middle school boys love this story because it is the beginning of bullying and they feel like they have to stand up against their own Goliaths every day. Or maybe it’s simply the fact that girls often hit puberty faster and therefore tower over their male counterparts to the point that they appear like mighty Goliaths.

But, if we’re honest, it’s not just a story for boys with BO and zits and cracking voices. This is the paradigm for so many beloved stories. It is THE underdog story.

            David defeating Goliath.

            Rocky. Remember the Titans. Rudy. The Karate Kid. Hoosiers. The Mighty Ducks. Slumbog Millionaire. Tin Cup. Cool Runnings. Revenge of the Nerds. I could go on and on and on. And those are just the movies!

We are beyond fascinated with underdog stories, with the Davids who defeat their Goliaths. We love rooting for the hero who appears to have no chance of winning. Maybe there is something in our humanity that bends toward the least likely victor who triumphs over evil.

And when this story is preached, when someone like me ascends to the promenade of the pulpit, the sermon is almost always about encountering our own giants. Preachers like me will look out at people like you and say things like: “We all face our own Goliaths. For some of us it’s depression, or debt, or directionlessness. And, like David, we just have to have faith that God will be with us, and that we will win.”

There are so many sermons exactly like that… So many, in fact, that when I went looking for a sermon with a different angle, I couldn’t find one. And then I grabbed the texts books from seminary and the countless commentaries I have organized around my office, and all of them had the same thing to say: When we face our Goliaths, God will give us the strength to persevere.

But here’s the thing: We are not David.

Most of us here today are not even like the Israelites cowering on the corner of the battlefield wondering about their future. Most of us have never experienced a moment of fragility such that everything would be decided in a single stroke, by the least likely of people. Most of us don’t know what it’s like to put our whole trust and faith into something we don’t know.

If we’re anyone in this story, we’re Goliath.

Now, I know, this isn’t good news. We don’t go to the movies to root for the bad guy! We don’t like coming to church and hearing about how bad we are! But, and this is hard, when we encounter the strangeness of this story, when we start identifying ourselves with particular characters, we have to be honest with ourselves.

            We are not David.

A foreign country full of might and power is about to change the stage for the entire world. The Philistines have the army, they’re got the right weapons and armor, they even have a Goliath.

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The Israelites have nothing. They are a ragtag group of would-be followers of Yahweh with a king who can’t even must the courage to walk out onto the battlefield, with no hope except for the hopeless shepherd boy David.

We are like the Philistines. Most people in the world either fear us, or want to be like us. We hold all the cards, we’ve got the greatest military, and we hold a promise for anyone of a better life. We not only stand like a beacon on a hill for everyone else to see, we WANT to be the beacon that everyone else can see!

It’s been a strange week in our country. While I was spending time last weekend at Annual Conference with all of the other Methodist pastors and lay leaders in Virginia, the first images, videos, and sounds were released from the detention centers near the border with Mexico. Hundreds of children could be seen in cages made of metal with scattered bottles of water, bags of chips, and metallic blankets thrown randomly about.

But the audio clips somehow made it worse.

Recordings came to the surface of children screaming for their parents, some of whom were forcibly taken away while breast feeding, others were told that they were going to get a nice warm bath and never returned.

As more and more reporting came out, and more and more churches spoke out, the administration eventually ended their policy of separating families as a deterrent for illegal immigration.

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            And we still think we’re David.

But we are not David. We are Goliath. We look down at those who flee from absolute terror and say, “Come to us, and we will break your families into oblivion, we will treat you like the animals we think you are.”

And just as every Goliath does, we need our David. We need our defeater. We need to be struck dead in the forehead about our frivolity and foolishness. We need to be taken down a peg or two. We need the mirror that shows us who we truly are. For as much as we like to think we are not like the politicians who pursued a policy of family separation, this is very much who we are.

And, to be clear, this isn’t about who sits in the oval office, or what political animal is ruling the country; it’s about recognizing who we really are in the story, and not passing responsibility on to somebody else.

So we need a David. But we don’t need THE David, we don’t need the handsome shepherd boy of Jesse. No, we need the new David. We need Jesus.

            We need Jesus to smack us across the head not with smooth stones from the wadi but with the hard wood of the cross. We need to be brought low to the ground before we can be raised high. We need to be defeated in order to be redeemed.

The story of David and Goliath is so beloved because we inherently love seeing good win-out. We love it when the tables are unexpectedly turned. We love believing in impossible possibilities.

And there are times when we will feel like David. We will experience things like depression, and debt, and directionlessness, and they will feel like mighty Goliaths blocking out the sun. And, at those moments, we do need to keep hope in the Lord that we will prevail, not because of our own doing, but because God is with us.

But one of the things we never talk about, at least anymore, is how much we are actually like Goliath – the ways we Lord ourselves over others whether it’s a different race, or gender, or age, or sexuality, or socio-economic status – the ways we dismiss those at the border, or in another country, or in another community – the ways we demean those we deem unworthy.

So, for as much as the story of David and Goliath is a reminder of God’s presence in the midst of our Goliaths, it is also a story about what happens to Goliath, what happens to us! God will not leave us to break down the oppressed and reject the weak. God delivers to us a little shepherd boy, born among the animals, to bring us down from the towers of power we have constructed for ourselves.

Jesus, thanks be to God, runs out to the battlefield of our lives and says, “No more!” Jesus grabs us by the collar and delivers the truth, the hard truth, “You are Goliath! But you don’t have to be.”

There is a way, a better way, the way.

The Lord does not save by sword and spear, the Lord does not redeem the world with giants and Goliaths.

The Lord sustains with water and Word, the Lord redeems us through a shepherd named Jesus.

And in God’s kingdom, even Goliaths get saved. Amen.

Godly Play

1 John 3.1-3

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

Families are complicated. There was a time when “the family” meant a husband and wife, 2.5 children, a dog, and a white picket fence. But frankly, that time never really existed. Regardless of Leave It To Beaver and the Andy Griffith Show, the family has never been normative for everyone, and it certainly isn’t today.

Families have, and always will, constitute a difficult and confusing set of relationships. There are families with children and without children. There are families with two dads and two moms. There are families that represent different races, different languages, and different cultures. The family is anything but ordinary.

And somehow we believe that we become a new family as the church.

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We might spend most of our lives debating who is in and who is out, whether its in regard to our family units, or our communities, or even our country. But here in 1 John we are offered a corrective: in the church we are all children of God, regardless of our community or culture or race or ethnicity or sexual orientation or just about anything else. Here in this place we are family.

We are in the middle of Eastertide; that time when the glory of Easter is still shining bright. And we have scriptural texts all about how to be in relationship with people we do not know in addition to the people we do know – we are God’s children. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Particularly when we say things like, “our church is a family” while we all act like we’re the adults and we forget what it means to be children.

The images of children are pervasive in scripture. And for good reason! Children live and work and play together with energy. They are not consumers sitting in pews waiting for something to happen. They are drawing in their bulletins, climbing over the pews, wandering around the altar area.

And even outside of the church, in the schoolyards and playgrounds, that’s where children live out their identities. They learn to communicate when something has gone wrong, they joyfully tug at one another, they make up new games, and they play.

Everything children do is about navigating a world in which their identities are still being formulated. They are not content with being labeled and placed in any kind of box. They live lives based on a fluidity that most of us have lost.

For some reason, as we mature into adulthood, our joyful play begins to fade and for some of us it completely stops. We just accept things the way they are, we make peace with the labels placed on us by society, we accept the love we think we deserve. We do all of this without ever asking, “Why?”

We are comfortable with our current relationships instead of forging new ones. We come home most evenings not with thoughts of what went well, but instead with thoughts about how everything fell apart. And, more often than not, we’d rather relax than play.

But not today.

The children of God, that’s us, work out their identities and relationships with energy and commitment and patience and intensity. They do it through play.

1 John 3, the text read for us this morning, compels and encourages us to see one another as children. It begs us to imagine a world in which we are still those joyful playful versions of ourselves.

So, I could fill this sermon with stories of how children play and come to inaugurate new visions of reality. I could call on each of you to remember your childhood games and imaginations. I could even ask us to think about the importance of being inclusive in the midst of playing with other and end with some sort of egalitarian vision of the church.

            Or, we could just play…

(For the next fifteen minutes everyone in worship had the option to play with play-dough, percussion instruments, blocks, coloring books, and an assortment of other activities.)